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Tilman Riemenschneider - German master woodcarver and sculptor

Updated on November 18, 2015
Sculptor self-portrait of Tilman Riemenschneider.
Sculptor self-portrait of Tilman Riemenschneider. | Source
Carving of St. Barbara by Tilman Riemenschneider
Carving of St. Barbara by Tilman Riemenschneider | Source
Altar carving, by Tilman Riemenschneider at St. Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Altar carving, by Tilman Riemenschneider at St. Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber | Source

Tilman Riemenschneider 1460-1531

Once upon a time and many years ago, I lived in the fairytale land of Germany, and there I discovered one of the most beautiful woodcarvers of all time. Tilman Riemenschneider, a former citizen of Wurzburg, Germany, where I had been transplanted, had left a roomful of beautiful carved statues, boxes, and figurines that captured my interest with their exquisite beauty in the museum of the Festung Marienburg. I would return here again and again to gaze upon the emotion-filled faces of his statues and the delicate carvings of the hands and clothing of his statues. They were so life-like as to almost step out in front of me and become alive: beautiful figures from the German Middle Ages.

Germany is well-known for its woodcarvings - a craft that has been handed down over the centuries - and is still going on today. Everywhere I looked at the shops and stores in Wurzburg and the surrounding towns in Bavaria, I found lovely woodcarvings. But, the most artistically beautiful and the ones that have always stood out for me were the carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider.

Tilman Riemenschneider was born between 1459 and 1462. The exact date of his birth has never been determiined, but we know he was born in Heiligenstadt im Eichsfedl in the German province of Thuringia. By the age of four, his family had resettled in Osterode. It is known that he first came to Wurzburg at the age of eighteen, but he did not stay for long. In 1473, he learned the trade of sculpting and woodcarving throughout Swabia and the upper Rhine, possibly passing through Strasbourg and Ulm. He was traveling a lot because the guild required apprentices in woodcarving and sculpting to travel to many different workshops in the area to gain experience and knowledge.

He finally settled in Wurzburg for good in 1483 and in December of that year, joined the St. Luke's Guild of painters, sculptors and glass workers as a painter's assistant. Several years later iin 1485 he made a good marriage to Anna Schmidt, a widow of a master goldsmith with three sons. The marriage brought him property and now he could become a master craftsman. But, Anna died ten years later, leaving him with a natural daughter and three step-sons. After this, Tilman married three times more after the death of Anna.

During his marriages, Tilman developed the artistic and business side of his work. His earliest confirmed work was the gravestone of Eberhard von Grumbach. With the success of this gravestone he later acquired large church commissions and received numerous orders from the town councils of Wurzburg and neighboring towns.

His earliest large work that he was commissioned for was to carve the Franziskusaltar of the St. Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber around the year 1490. Also, this same year the town council of Munnerstadt asked Tilman to carve an altar piece of St. Maria Magdalena, the parish church. It included a carving of St. Mary Magdalene with Six Angels. The following year, he was commissioned by the city council of Wurzburg to sculpt two stone figures of Adam and Eve for the south portal of the Marienkapelle. In 1945, he also carved the statue of Mary with child in the Pfarrkirche St. Bernard, also in Wurzburg. The writer Herman Hesse described his carving of Mary as, "Dreamily she gazes out from her glass case, far away from our world . . . in her gracefulness and distinction she is refined to a degree of perfection above that of mankind today."

By 1500. Tilman Riemenschneider had an outstanding reputation as an artist and he was a wealthy Wurzburg citizen and landowner with nearby vineyards. He also ran his own workshop and provided work for forty apprentices doing woodcarving, scupting and painting. He was a leader in his city and was a Wurzburg councilman for twenty years and from 1520-24 was the Mayor of Wurzburg.

As you look at his woodcarvings and sculptures, you can see that he carved in the Gothic style, and his later work shows mannerism characteristics. What is unique about his work are the expressions he carves on the faces and the expressiveness in the hands and bodies of his carvings. There are great details to his carvings which are very realistic and he even carves richly folded clothing on his figurines. His emphasis on the expression of inner emotions sets Riemenschneider's work apart from his predecessors and his contemporaries. His carvings and sculptures were considered in the same vane as Albrecht Durer, Germany's prolific painter. Art historian, Kenneth Clark has said that the figures carved by Riemenschneider showed serious personal piety in Germany in the late 15th century and are suggestive of the coming Reformation.

It is sad, that with such a successful and profitable business and workshop and the respect he had earned as an artist, that the end of his life would take a cruel twist. After a peasant's uprising in the area the German Peasant's War broke out. After Wurzburg surrendered to the troops of Georg, Steward of Waldburg - Zeil and the Bishop, the full city council, of which Tilman was a member at the time, was imprisoned and tortured in the Marienburg citadel. Tilman's hands were broken and this ended his artistic career. Several months later when the men were set free they found they had lost all of their property. Tilman received no more major commissions and from then on led a life of retirement. He died in Wurzburg in 1531. His son Jorg continued his artistic workshop after his death.

Fortunately, we have Tilman Riemenschneider's beautiful woodcarvings and stone sculptures that have made him immortal to Wurzburg and Germany. Today, because of his artistic work we are able to get a glimpse into the people and world of Germany during the Middle Ages. Athough the Midde Ages were a difficult time in history, we see the grace and elegance of the people through Tilman Riemenschnieider's lovely woodcarvings.


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  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Nell: Thanks so much! Yes, I was amazed by his wood carvings and one of the great artists from Wurzburg. I had never heard of him until I lived there, but his works deserve mention. I know, life back then was brutal! Thanks so much for your visit!

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

    They are certainly amazing pieces, I love these sort of scultures, and to have his hands broken is just beyond belief. he lived in the wrong time, great read suzette!

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    chef-de-jour: He was amazing. I couldn't believe how fortunate I was to live among all this beauty in Germany and Wurzburg. It was a wonderful time. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I'm glad you appreciate Riemenschneider's work - it is stunning!

  • chef-de-jour profile image

    Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Beautiful craftsmanship. Thank you for these insights into a gifted carver - special work that reflects true talent and dedication. And the quote from Hesse is a bonus, I think he would have really appreciated the lightness of being encapsulated in Mary.


  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    Sorry, I can't help you. I have never seen copies of his work for sale anywhere, even in Germany. If you ever find any, please let me know. Thanks for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed this.

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    thomasles 5 years ago

    My wife has long been in love with Reimenschneider's St Barbara carving at the New York Met. Do you know where I could find quality copies of this sculpture?


  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thanks so much for stopping by to read and view this. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Riemenschneider truly was a gifted artist. If you ever get to this area of Germany, be sure to see his works. I learned about him when I lived in Wurzburg. Thanks so much for your insightful comments.

  • marshacanada profile image

    marshacanada 5 years ago from Vancouver BC

    Thanks for this hub on a brilliant woodcarver. Tilman Reimanschneider's art is an inspiration for me. I loved the photos. Wish I could have seen him carve-but time travel is not an option at present.Voted up and interesting.